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Hearing the voices of Baldwin and King

Bishop Bard with two albums of speeches by Martin Luther King, Jr.

In a video shared on January 18, 2021, Bishop David Bard asks the church to listen to the voices of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Baldwin and “to other Black and Brown voices that are also calling us forward.” 


Michigan Area

I greet you on this celebration of the birthday of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. This day brings with it some wonderful memories for me. When I was pastor of First United Methodist Church in Duluth, MN, I joined other area clergy for a Sunday evening interreligious worship service at a historically Black church in our community. The morning of MLK Day, either the church I pastored or a Catholic Church in town, hosted a community breakfast. There was always a late morning march of about a mile and a half. That may not sound like much, but remember, this was January in Duluth!

More than memories, I carry within me the distinct voice of Dr. King. I was only nine years old when he died, but his voice echoes in my soul as I’ve listened to it again and again over the years. While in college, I bought these two records on the Gordy label – that’s Barry Gordy of Motown. One is a recording of an earlier version of King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” given in Detroit. The other has a sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct,” and his final speech, given the night before he was killed. I carry that voice within my soul.

This year, I also carry the voice of Black author James Baldwin in my soul. This summer, I watched the recent award-winning documentary about Baldwin, “I Am Not Your Negro.” This holiday season, I read Baldwin’s book of essays, The Fire Next Time, and could hear his voice as I read.

I am grateful to listen to those voices today.  I am grateful for Dr. King’s words: God has a way of wringing good out of evil…. At times, life is hard, as hard as crucible steel. It has its bleak and painful moments. Like the ever-flowing waters of a river, life has its moments of drought and its moments of flood. Like the ever-changing cycle of the seasons, life has the soothing warmth of the summers and the piercing chill of its winters. But through it all, God walks with us. Never forget that God is able to lift you from the fatigue of despair to the buoyancy of hope.  Lest we think such words too sanguine for the moment we are in, I remind you that these words were spoken in a eulogy for four Black girls murdered in a church bombing in Birmingham.

 I am grateful for James Baldwin’s words.  We, the black and the white, deeply need each other here if we are really to become a nation – if we are really, that is, to achieve our identity, our maturity, as men and women (The Fire Next Time, 111)

On this MLK Birthday celebration today, I ask us to listen to those voices and to other Black and Brown voices that are also calling us forward by asking difficult but necessary questions like why black and brown bodies continue to die at the hands of law enforcement in disproportionate numbers – George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and December 22 – Andre Hill; why was the law enforcement response seemingly so different when a predominantly white group stormed the Capital Building in comparison to protestors calling attention to the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor; why do White people struggle so mightily to acknowledge the impact of racialized thinking in our history, in how we have treated Black, Brown and Indigenous persons.

As we hear those voices of pain and anguish and longing and hope, we must join the work articulated so well by Dr. King “to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood” (1963) and “to speed up the day when there will be peace on earth and goodwill toward all” (Christmas Sermon, 1967).

~ Click here to read The United Methodist Council of Bishop’s call to action in commemoration of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.